A civil jury has awarded a Massachusetts lawmaker $4.8 million in a suit against neighbors who launched a cyber-harassment campaign against the man and his family after he opposed a land development deal in their neighborhood, reports the Boston Globe.
State Representative James J. Lyons, Jr. (R-Andover) filed suit against William and Gail Johnson, alleging the couple — with the help of a friend — inflicted emotional distress on his family. The Johnsons and their friend accused Lyons of abusing his son, and posted bogus ads on Craigslist that led to late-night phone calls and strangers showing up at his door at all hours of the day.
According to the suit, the Johnsons were unhappy with Lyons when he opposed a planning board’s approval of changes to property they owned that abutted his own. Court documents show that William Johnson reached out to an old friend saying, “I got a pal of mine up the street I want to pull a prank on.” The two friends remembered “pranks” they played as kids — sending pizzas and cabs to people’s homes.
“This is 2008,” the friend reportedly said. “You don’t send cabs anymore. We’ll use the Internet.”
The two then launched a campaign of harassment; advertising on Craigslist that Lyons was giving away free golf carts, instructing interested parties to call after 10PM, and posting Lyons’ Social Security number and other private information on the Internet.
The harassment reached a peak when a man calling himself Brian accused Lyons of molesting him as a teenage employee at his ice cream shop years earlier.
Department of Children and Families investigators showed up on the Lyonses’ doorstep after fielding a child abuse hotline call late one evening requesting an interview with Lyons’ eighth-grade son, to check him for bruises.
Lyons and his wife became panic-stricken because the boy played football and therefore might have bruises on his body.
“It was the most frightening thing that any parent can go through,” Bernadette Lyons said. “You know after a report goes out that they have the power to take your kid away.”
Johnson was convicted in 2011 of falsely reporting the child abuse claim after his friend cooperated with investigators, telling them he had been harassing the family at the Johnsons’ behest.
The Johnsons appealed their criminal conviction to the state Supreme Judicial Court — arguing his conduct was constitutionally protected free speech — only to have it slapped down by a unanimous court.
With interest, the civil suit could total $8.3 million.
According to Lyons’s attorney Michael Gillis, “Hopefully a judgment like this has a deterrent effect on others who think this might be funny.”